It was a quiet exchange, and none of the customers even realized anything had happened until the guy with the gun had run out the door, crossed the parking lot, jumped a guardrail, and disappeared into the woods. Then the cashier started bawling her eyes out, and everyone else caught on that something had happened. I had been sitting in a Dunkin Donuts with my friend Mark in Haverhill, Massachusetts, my hometown. It was the mid-1990s, sometime around midnight, and we were sitting there wasting time when the place got robbed.
The natural order of doughnut serving and doughnut purchasing and doughnut consuming broke down immediately. The cashier cried on the shoulder of her shift manager, who was trying to talk to the cops on the phone. The handful of customers in the seating area, myself included, were peering out into the night, trying to see past our own fluorescent-lit reflections, trying to see where the gun dude had ran off to. All of this mayhem was punctuated by the squawking, tinny voices of irate customers over the unmanned drive-thru intercom.
I was tempted to jump over the counter and take command of the drive-thru and fill their orders, to keep my fellow New Englanders properly lubricated with jelly and caffeine. But I resisted that temptation, because it was a stupid idea. Besides, at the time, Haverhill boasted at least 12 other Dunkin Donuts locations, so it’s not like they couldn’t go drive-thru somewhere else.
A table or two away from where Mark and I were sitting, there was this high school girl who convinced herself that she had just barely escaped disaster. She announced to the room, “Awmagaad! I coulda gawt shot!” She repeated this several times, her panic and volume increasing with each iteration, as she looked to her boyfriend and to me and Mark for confirmation that, yes, indeed, awmagaad, she coulda gawt shot. I could guess what was running through her head: “OH MY GAWD. THERE’S SOMETHIN HAPPENIN AROUND ME THAT SEEMS LIKE SOMETHIN ON TV. I HAVE SOMETHIN TO TALK ABOUT IN HOMEROOM TOMORROW. O MY GAWD.” She was clearly trying as hard as she could to turn this into some sort of Defining Life Experience. She eventually worked her way over to the counter to interrogate the still-crying cashier: What was it like? Were you scared? Did you see the gun? Awmagaad. Each response was memorized for the following day’s five minute passing period between Algebra and Biology. This girl was determined to remember every detail of this dramatic episode in her life, especially the details that didn’t happen to her.
In fact, this girl decided that she was so traumatized, so endangered, she had to go outside to the payphone and call her mother to tell her how distraught she was over this gun-toting ‘perp’ who had just run across the parking lot, jumped the guardrail, and disappeared into the woods. The problem I have with this clever course of action is – okay, yeah, fine, call your mom – But the payphone is outside. Across the parking lot. Over by the guardrail. Right next to the woods.
* Listen to the audio essay version of this story
* This story is included in my best-of comic collection Everything You Didn’t Ask For